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American F1 Sponsorship: An Interview with SunCore Solar

This year’s race at Circuit of The Americas will be a landmark event in the history of F1, and while the venue and fans will help form a new home for the sport, a significant part of what will ultimately drive the sport’s growth in America will come from the partners and sponsors that use F1’s global reach to brand and market their products and services.


Formula 1 is typically a closed shop, meaning the business of F1 isn’t usually open for discussion with outside parties, but it is important to hear some American corporate perspective and testimonial to the value F1 brings business. We rarely get a view of F1 from the companies whose investment creates the necessary finance for the sport, but recently I enjoyed an informative and enthusiastic interview with Jane Johnson, Director of Communications at SunCore Solar, a privately held mobile solar technology company, and a sponsor last season with Lotus Renault GP (now Team Lotus). Your thoughts and comments are appreciated below.

Special thanks to Jane Johnson and SunCore’s CEO and co-founder, Steve Brimmer, for their contributions to this interview.

I appreciate your time to answer a few questions for ‘F1 in America’. Can you tell us about SunCore and the goals it had in mind when choosing F1 as a marketing platform?

To our targeted audience Formula 1 easily represents the pinnacle in motorsport, the foremost of sports. It is understood F1 leads in the development of superior automotive science and technology, with a continuous advancement of high performance aerodynamics and material utilization which commands respect by fans and casual observers alike. By associating with a progressive F1 team, SunCore believed it would increase its own global visibility, brand credibility, marketing & business development opportunities.

Was there something unique about F1 that set it apart or were several other types of platforms (including motorsport) considered?

F1 is widely recognized as the most technologically advanced motorsport series in existence, in addition to it commanding the largest global broadcast and print media audience, thus it was the logical choice for us, given that we see ourselves as equally advanced in our technology development.

Could you describe SunCore’s involvement with Lotus Renault GP and F1 in 2011?

Our involvement was limited to five races due to budgetary restrictions although we had hoped for a much longer involvement. We found the team to be of the highest caliber in every aspect and we had a great experience with them before, during and after the races.

How did you rate and measure the benefit of SunCore’s participation given the large financial involvement F1 is known for requiring?

We learned that to fully benefit from F1 involvement, one needs to pre-plan a full season in advance, in order to fully derive the maximum available benefit. Once the season starts, things move very fast, so clarity of what each race can provide for exposure and hospitality benefit is absolutely necessary, before you arrive at the circuit. As such, we were honored to receive the exposure we did through our association with the team.

NovaCell™ SunCore's High-performance light-powered charger

Were there any intangible or latent benefits you weren’t expecting?

Yes, direct contact with race fans was a pleasant surprise. We received many emails from fans who sought us out, which we appreciated a great deal.

Do you feel there is anything Formula 1 as a whole could do to increase the value for American corporate sponsorship?

Television coverage in the U.S. market is still lacking. The Speed Channel F1 race coverage team do an excellent job of educating viewers about the sport and covering the races, but the fact is that the races are poorly promoted by the networks including FOX when they broadcast a select few races each season. SPEED Channel is 90% dedicated to NASCAR and thus F1 suffers from trying to squeeze in between the NASCAR events and daily feed of NASCAR promotions and sin-off programs. We were amazed at the high profile F1 has in global broadcasting including new markets such as Korea and India. U.S. viewership simply cannot mature until one of the networks make the commitment to carry and promote the series…much as did ABC in the 60’s and 70’s with its Wide World of Sports weekend series. Most of today’s baby-boomer generation knows F1 only as a result of ABC’s coverage in those decades.

I understand SunCore is taking a break from Formula 1 this year, but now that the sport is coming back to the US and with two races scheduled for 2013, how does that affect the company’s decision to reengage with F1? Keeping in mind that Austin has developed into a hub for green businesses and the New Jersey race next year has been billed as green-friendly with the exclusive use of public transportation to and from the track.

We intend to be back in F1 in 2013, not solely due to the Texas and NJ races, but because it is good for our brand and Company identity. Of course, the Texas race in particular provides us an excellent opportunity to maximize our benefit, as we have relationships with the Texas State Officials as well as with Rice University and we can resonate with renewable energy programs in Austin and elsewhere in the State of Texas. Having home Grands Prix is a bonus for a sponsor, but certainly not the singular motivation for being in the sport.

American Alexander Rossi is currently linked with SunCore on his website and appears to be headed for a drive in F1 in the near future. How do US companies like SunCore value American drivers competing in the sport?

We sponsored Alexander for the 2011 season in the World Series By Renault 3.5 where he finished 3rd. Our intention and motivation to becoming involved with Alexander was rooted in a desire to support an American driver who we see as having the skill set to attain a ride in FI. Of course, while we are presently team-centric in our F1 sponsorship plans, with Alexander it was purely him and independent of the team he was with, in this case Fortec. We realized a considerable amount of exposure with Alexander in 2011 per dollar invested, as the Series is vastly more economical than FI, we had a great experience overall. We would like to stay with Alexander as he migrates upward to F1 as we see him as an extraordinary talent.

Thanks again for your time to answer these questions, Jane. In an earlier conversation you mentioned that you’ve become a big F1 fan in the last year, what was the highlight for you last season?

Everything! Our team involvement led to many opportunities that the general fan cannot access. At each circuit the energy generated by all the F1 teams is nearly overwhelming, an immediate simulation of all your senses. Suddenly you’re welcomed as a team member enabling a very personal bond, even a link to other F1 team drivers. At home I continue to feel a personal association with our team, enough to make me stay-up all night. An extremely important component in the puzzle of becoming a true F1 fan is the ability to share the experience with others. For me it’s my brother. He’s the only person I knew that doesn’t mind a 3am phone call because he’s also up watching F1 qualifying or a race.

Lastly, Will you be going to the race in Austin in November?

Are you inviting?

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Filed under American companies in F1, American F1 drivers, Americans working in F1, brand strategy in F1, Circuit of the Americas, F1 and branding, F1 and business, F1 and technology, F1 broadcasting in America, United States Grand Prix in Austin

The Canadian GP 2011: Three for the Road

 

Button & Vettel, Canada 2010

The Cahier Archive

 

First off – a safe journey to all travelling up to the races this weekend in Montreal, it looks like it will be another year of fantastic racing.  Several friends and members of our local F1 group are heading up and so I’ve put together a few things about events around this race . . .

Tomorrow (Thursday) will be the first of three Formula One Teams Association fan forums, where fans will have the opportunity to engage with the sport most directly.  The event has been filled up, but questions can be emailed to info@teamsassociation.org for review.  Only registered fans will be allowed to attend, but all should send their $.02 for this event.

Friday night in Montreal will experience a boost with social media getting a real trial at this year’s GP.  With so many North Americans on Twitter and Facebook, the hashtags will be flying from hotspot to afterhours.  Not one to get left behind, Red Bull has launched a new app – Invasion – which will catapult the latest goings on through the iPhone from track side to bar side.  Redbull’s integration with event, city, and team will be interesting to watch and measure the impact they and the medium have with F1 audience and businesses.  Circuit of the Americas and the city of Austin will do well to watch and learn from this exercise as the race there will draw the next big North American audience in 2012.

Finally, this Saturday and Sunday a 30 year history of Hugo Boss and McLaren together in photographs will be on display from friend and photographer Paul-Henri Cahier, and event details are here on our Facebook page.  If you haven’t had a look through the history of the Cahier Archive, it’s well worth viewing.

Best to everyone up in Montreal – and look forward to meeting everyone in Austin in 2012!

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A Conversation with Parris Mullins

 

Special to ‘F1 in America’ thanks to Alex Wong, author:

Hello everyone! I recently had a chat with my friend Parris Mullins and we talked about his time at the now defunct USF1 Team, and what he thinks of the upcoming USGP in Austin. He was a key player in trying to save the team during its last days. I would like to share that conversation with you all.

Parris Mullins

Alex Wong: Can you tell us what your role at USF1 was, and if you could give us an idea what went on during the last weeks before the team officially ceased operations?

Parris Mullins: That’s a good question and I wish I had a straight answer for you. I was brought in at the early stages and even though my title was not defined, I worked closely with the Commercial Director and the Business Development team. Towards the end my role drastically changed of course, as we were trying to find solutions to get the team to the grid on time. I assembled a group of individuals from within the team and a couple outside advisors to help come up with solutions to get us to the grid. We looked at every possible option whether it be the Dallaras, the Toyotas, or merging with another team. It was pretty hectic as you can imagine cause with every solution we came up with, some other obstacle was thrown in our path. Literally while I was in Parma negotiating with Dallara to buy the two cars that Campos defaulted on, their primary investor Carabante wired the balance due and secured the cars. I couldn’t do anything with Toyota because of their contract with Stefanovic. So naturally I looked at what a merger would look like with either of them. The Toyota option was very tempting given that we knew the level of the car would be to current F1 standards, with current F1 knowledge and built on a current F1 budget, the largest budget in F1 to be exact. The same could not be said for the Dallara as it was built on a limited budget, with a limited amount of current F1 knowledge and a limited amount of staff, not to mention a very limited amount of time. We knew we would have gotten a limited car, but we would have at least made it to the grid. The Toyota option, as appealing as it was, came with some caveats. Most of the equipment had to be leased, we were not allowed to purchase it and we had already spent a great deal of money with Cosworth for the engines and they weren’t about to give us a refund. Modifying the Toyota to take a Cosworth was not an option for a number of reasons. The two most important factors though, when looking at the possible solutions we had in front of us were; Is this a sustainable solution? And will it keep the team intact? We did not want to let anyone go. The team, or family I should say, that we had assembled in Charlotte, came together from all over the world to be a part of this. They gave everything they had and worked around the clock. Making sure that family stayed together was the most important factor to myself and the investors. We would not sacrifice them just to save the investment. So to answer your question, those final weeks were crazy, absolutely insane. Things would change by the hour and we were working round the clock to save it. I can’t tell you how many planes I was on and how many different time zones I was in in just the course of a week, let alone several weeks. It was really amazing to see how the team reacted in those final weeks. They all were extremely optimistic and supportive and ready to take on anything. Sadly, we all know how this story ends. We weren’t able to find a sustainable solution for the team to move forward. I could not advise the current investors or possible new ones to waste anymore money based on the options available to us.

AW: So looking back, what did you learn from your experience at USF1, and your dealings with Bernie Ecclestone and the other team principals? How important is the US market to Formula 1?

PM: Well I learned a great deal as you can imagine. I don’t know that I can really list specific examples other than I learned a great deal about the inner workings of the sport, the feasibility of starting a team from scratch and just how big of a feat that really is. I also learned a lot about myself and what people are capable of, both good and bad. I will say though that the support from within the F1 community was tremendous. The suppliers, the teams, the FIA, to Bernie Ecclestone himself. They gave us all the help they could, given the circumstances. It’s funny, I would read these articles about Bernie saying negative things about the team and therefore people thought we didn’t have his support. He just didn’t appreciate being lied to and being fed false information. He was not being told the reality of our situation by the heads of the team and rightfully, that pissed him off. All of my dealings with him were very positive and he always made himself available whether it was for a phone call or a meeting. I think had the heads of USF1 listened to him sooner we might actually be competing in the sport right now through some solution he would have brokered. It’s what he does, he gets things done. Not always to everyone’s liking, but it gets done nonetheless. In regards to the US market, it is extremely important to them. California alone is the 8th largest economy in the world. For a number of sponsors this is their largest market, not to mention the automotive companies that are represented in F1. Infiniti is with Red Bull, McLaren is making road cars, Mercedes has their own team, Lotus is branded on two teams and of course the most obvious one is Ferrari, who have a huge following here. There isn’t a Ferrari owner in the US that isn’t aware of Formula 1 and Ferrari’s rich heritage and success in the sport. Everyone in Formula 1 knows the importance of having a presence here and I think between the promoters, the teams and FOM they will do all they can to put on a good show for the US.

AW: Back in May 2010 they announced that Formula 1 will be returning to the US with the race being held in Austin, TX. Knowing what you know now after your experience at USF1, and dealing with several F1 insiders, what are your thoughts on the upcoming race in Austin, and the plans the organizers have presented so far?

PM: It’s exciting to say the least. Being from California I would have loved to have seen a Grand Prix staged here, but Austin is a very progressive city that is rich with technology and culture. And who is to say that if F1 does well there that it won’t open up the possibility of other venues within the United States. I am hoping it will spread like a wildfire and that F1 personalities will become household names at some point here in the US. I know a lot of the drivers and personnel love being here, some of my friends in F1 would visit me when they were here for the Indy and Montreal races. I’m sure Michael Schumacher would love to sneak one of his Harley Davidsons onto the transport plane or keep one out here so he can ride it through Texas.

AW: Do you think they finally found the “secret sauce” to make Formula 1 a success here in the States? Would you do anything differently?

PM: Well to be fair, we have yet to see the “secret sauce” other than a Herman Tilke designed track, which is a good start. But in all seriousness what Tavo and his team are doing is fueled by passion and that’s the most you can ask for, they want to see this succeed more than anyone. That passion is the “secret sauce” and from what I hear the Austin area is already buzzing about F1 and are very excited to have the sport in their area. I think everyone involved in the project will do all that they can to make it a success here in the US. It is a huge undertaking and I think its success will be largely based on the work done by the promoters, FOM and FOTA’s Commercial Working group. This whole thing is a huge marketing exercise and if they can grow the awareness and get people to the track then the racing will do the rest.  All they can do is do their best and hope that the United States takes it in and is able to process how amazing this sport really is. I can’t say that I would do anything differently, but I do think they should find a way to embrace the other forms of major racing here in the US and gain their support. If they could get an F1 car in front of the NASCAR fans, that would be epic. When I was living in Charlotte I spent a great deal of time with the NASCAR community, everyone from team owners, to drivers, to fans. They were very excited about having an F1 team in the area and I think if you got an F1 car in front of NASCAR fans they would embrace it. They have seen several F1 and openwheel drivers make the switch to NASCAR and try and adapt to that style of racing and even if they aren’t fans of road racing, they are petrol heads and would appreciate the visceral experience of seeing an F1 car at speed. There is no way you can say an F1 car isn’t cool. That’s like saying an F-16 isn’t cool. Just not possible.

AW: So how is life after USF1? Are you done with Formula 1 or is it still unfinished business?

PM: Life is great! I am back in California where most of my family and friends are. I still keep in touch with most members of the team as well as people I have become good friends with in both the F1 and NASCAR worlds. Last year I was working with an investor group that was looking at the possibility of buying into or buying out completely an existing team. The timing wasn’t right so they didn’t pull the trigger. I know that is a very generic statement and I hate to even say it but it’s true, timing is everything in this sport as it is with all businesses and when we started negotiations it was a very different situation from where we eventually ended up several weeks later. That possibility is still there and the Austin GP will only help. There is also a lot of American talent headed to F1. Alexander Rossi is now a part of the Lotus Driver Development program and you have guys like Gabby Chaves, Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly that could all end up in the seat of an F1 car. So if we have the Austin GP and American drivers then a proper American F1 team might be in the cards, but I stress the word proper. I would rather it just be the Austin GP and American drivers than risk another debacle like USF1. It has to be done right or not at all, plain and simple. So in regards to being done with F1 or not, I will be a life-long fan of the sport and will support it in any way that I can and if Formula 1 has a place for me within it then I would gladly take the opportunity.

Editor’s note:

Alex Wong and I met at one of the many San Francisco Formula 1 Group’s events, and we both found we had known Parris after Autosport’s interview with him last year.  I’m grateful for Alex’s interview posted here with his kind permission, and if you’d like to write for ‘F1 in America’, please drop a note to info (at) sff1 (dot) com.  – Peter Habicht

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